As far back as I can remember, certainly as far back as when I was a student in college, I wanted to try to center all my studies and reading and my intellectual life in general around my Catholic faith.
I believed that my Catholic faith should influence everything I studied and read. I was interested in allowing my faith to influence my academic life and my burgeoning interest in literature, theater and film.
This was one reason while I was in college that I began to read the magazines, “America” and “Commonweal,” a practice I have continued to the present moment. These two magazines seemed to me to present regularly a Catholic view of the contemporary world. Whatever success I had in achieving a unified view of reality centered around my Catholic faith was greatly helped by a regular reading of these two magazines.
Without ever being parochial or narrow minded, both America and Commonweal approached every topic from a Catholic point of view. They still do. Probably my interest in what is usually referred to as the “Catholic novel” was nourished and deepened by reading novels that dramatized some Catholic teaching. The novels of Graham Greene held a special interest for me because I experienced them apparently the way publisher-author-theologian Frank Sheed appreciated them. Sheed said that Greene wrote as though the headline on the daily newspaper was “Son of God died for us.”
My years-long effort to allow my Catholic faith to shed a unifying light on my intellectual life has been on my mind since I read Father Michael Himes’ marvelous essay, “Finding God in All Things.”
In a few wonderful sentences Michael articulates what I have been struggling to do throughout my adult life. His articulation is challenging, illuminating and inspiring. His vision has helped me to see my vocation as a teacher in a new way.
Father Himes stresses that, because all of creation is a product of God’s love, there is nothing that cannot speak to us of God. Indeed there is nothing that cannot reveal God’s love to us. All of creation can become sacramental for us, can become a sign of God’s love and can communicate that love to us.
Reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation, Father Himes points out that because you and I and God share humanity in common, we should become as fully human as we can. Because we share humanity with the Son of God, to become more fully human is to become more like God. To become more fully human, to become more like God, is to become more holy. Father Himes writes the following:
“Thus, whatever enriches and deepens our humanity, whatever makes us braver, wiser, more intelligent, more responsive, freer, more loving, makes us holy, i.e. like God. Thus, education, which certainly should aim at making human beings braver, wiser, more intelligent, more responsible, freer, and more loving, is a work of sanctification. This is why the Christian community has always been involved in education and not only in catechetics…. Rather, any and every field of study is ultimately religious in nature if everything rests on grace and humanity is shared with God in Christ.
“This sacramental conviction shapes Catholicism at its best. Of course, Catholicism is not always at its best …Still, at its best and wisest, Catholicism is shaped by the conviction that grace lies at the root of all reality. And if this conviction is true, all the humanities as well as all the sciences become religious enterprises.”
If Father Himes is right about education, and I believe he is, we don’t have to try to “baptize” all our studies as though they were not valuable or worthwhile without our attempts to make them participate in the process of salvation and sanctification. They are not only intrinsically valuable and worthwhile but they can be deeply religious in their power to help us become more human and hence more like the Incarnate God.
At the beginning of every philosophy course that I teach at St. John’s University I encourage the students not to miss the big picture, not to allow assignments and exams and other pressures to cause them to miss the big picture.
I urge them to appreciate the marvelous mysteries they will be dealing with in the course, mysteries such as freedom, love, God, death. I stress that what we are studying can enormously enrich our lives. After reading Michael’s essay I am going to remind myself that both the students and I are going to be engaging in a religious activity.
Not only can their studies and my studies expand our humanity; our studies can make us more like God, that is, help us to be holy.